Reflections of a Photographic Legend
Written by Crystal Ward Kent
Photographed by Michael Penney
Produced And Styled By Sabrina Velandry
Albert Einstein, President Dwight Eisenhower, John Wayne, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. Ozzie Sweet’s photographic portfolio represents a Who’s Who of some of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Yet these famous names only scratch the surface of his accomplishments. Ozzie’s work revolutionized photography, from the manner in which magazine covers were created, to the technology involved in creating them. Unlike many current photographers who tend to specialize, Ozzie was a master of every genre, reaching the top of his profession in portraiture, sports photography, cover work, wildlife photography, calendar shoots and commercial advertising. To anyone who knows his work, Ozzie Sweet is an icon.
Ozzie stopped shooting just three years ago, and at age 91 is now busy assembling collections of his photographs, working from his home studio in York Harbor, Maine. The Sweets’ house is tucked high on a hill. A dirt drive winds up through the trees, and a shingle-style house suddenly emerges from the lush greenery. Ozzie and Diane wait on the porch. Ozzie’s grip is firm, his eyes twinkle. The affection between him and Diane, his wife of 36 years, is obvious. They have been partners, adventurers and friends on an amazing journey.
Over a glass of iced tea, the couple looks back at Ozzie’s illustrious career.
Through The Lens
Ozzie grew up in New Russia, New York, in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains. A farm boy, he spent his days around animals—an experience that would prove useful decades later when he embarked on work as a wildlife photographer. His keen eye led to an interest in art, but it was sculpting that he first pursued, not photography. “I carved some faces in the rocks along Route 9 in New Russia,” he smiled. “This was the ‘Bootleggers’ Run,’ as the road ran straight from New York City to Montreal. Those faces are still there if you look under the overgrowth.”
Even then Ozzie knew that if you wanted to be the best, you had to learn from the best, so he brashly requested an internship with Gutzon Borglum, the famed sculptor of Mount Rushmore. Amazingly, a deal was struck, but Ozzie acknowledges that he spent more time sweeping the floor than working alongside Borglum. Nonetheless, his time spent sculpting aided him in his photography. “Sculpting helps you understand light and shadow and shows you how to see things,” he said. “You learn how to compose your subjects.”
At age 18, California beckoned, and Ozzie headed west with dreams of pursuing an acting career. Tall, with rugged good looks, he quickly landed parts, most notably appearing as a cowboy in the Hopalong Cassidy films. “I wasn’t a great actor, but I could leap onto a horse,” he chuckled. While on set, he began observing the filmmakers of the day and was intrigued. Soon thereafter, World War II broke out, and Ozzie enlisted. Assigned to the Signal Corps, he was trained as a photographer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ozzie’s staged photo of a GI clenching a knife between his teeth made the cover of Newsweek. More covers would follow. Newsweek needed covers that captured what was happening during the war, but actual photos weren’t always available. Ozzie, with his filmmaking background, knew the art of staging and makeup. He envisioned ways to tell a story, and with his covers, the art of photographic illustration was born. For example, Ozzie once rounded up a group of male friends, dressed them in tattered uniforms, made them up to look battered, and set them adrift in a rubber raft to convey the peril American sailors faced after their ships sank. “We had great fun putting that together,” he recalled. “They couldn’t believe what I was asking them to do, but the end result had the impact we needed.”
After the war, Ozzie served on the staff of Newsweek for several years, then left to freelance, shooting for dozens of the country’s top magazines: Liberty; Time; Cosmopolitan; Look; Sport; Field & Stream; Boy’s Life; Ebony; TV Guide; The Saturday Evening Post; and countless others. The list of luminaries captured by his lens is too long to enumerate, but a few stand out.
There is Jimmy Durante with a butterfly on his nose. “I wanted to use his nose as a perch to playfully illustrate its size,” smiled Ozzie. “I captured a butterfly, and kept it in my refrigerator overnight, knowing the cold would slow it down. The next day Jimmy let me apply rubber cement to his nose, and I stuck the butterfly there!”
Then there is Bob Hope having breakfast in bed. “I wanted something outside the usual portrait,” recalled Ozzie. “We met in his hotel, and I ordered room service. I knew if the food arrived all hot and tempting, he’d eat it, and he did!”
And Albert Einstein—smiling? According to Ozzie, the brilliant scientist arrived with characteristically rumpled hair and loafers with the backs flattened down. Ozzie joked that if Einstein was wearing loafers that way, they’d probably become the next fashion craze. Einstein laughed, and click! Ozzie had his photo.
“Ozzie loves people,” said Diane. “They respond to that, famous or not.”
Of all his photographic work, Ozzie enjoyed shooting sports figures the most, and over the years he built friendships with many of them. He especially loved photographing ballplayers, and was a familiar face at spring training. Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees was a popular subject, and the two developed a friendship. Ozzie documented each year of Mantle’s career, and at spring training, Mantle would holler, “Hey Ozz, what crazy thing are we going to do this year?”
Ozzie was as famous for his candid shots as his portraits, and one of his most famous is an informal group shot of young Yankees stars Mantle, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin and Bob Grim on a deep-sea fishing trip just after spring training. Ozzie organized the trip, and the players let him shoot at will. Among the classic photos is an unscripted look at the “boys of summer,” shirt-sleeved and sunburned, Cokes in hand, unaware of the camera, enjoying a bit of downtime before the madness of the season began. Ozzie won the Lucie Award in 2005 for Sports Photography, the equivalent of an Oscar.
A Home In The Trees
The Sweets’ home is surrounded by mature pines and oaks, providing the house with privacy and shade. They spend much of their time on a glorious wraparound porch—reminiscent of one that adorned Ozzie’s boyhood home. There they read, relax or just watch the birds. “We fought to keep the builders from cutting the trees,” said Diane. “That would have been a shame. The birds love the trees, and so do we—it’s like living in a tree house.” Their yard has no lawn, just colorful plantings of flowers and greenery. Off to one side, Diane hopes to add a small meadow, as she and Ozzie miss the fireflies.
Upon entering the house, one feels transported to the Adirondacks. The combination living and dining room is a soothing sage green, with rustic furniture carved from logs and fitted with cushions. Bookcases line the walls, and a forest-themed rug sprawls across the hardwood floor. Wonderful light pours in from the windows. Along one side, an ancient tuxedo couch that belonged to Ozzie’s grandfather provides a cozy napping spot.
However, the focal point of the room is an enormous black and white photograph of a bison, deep in winter snow. The photo nearly fills the paneled wall above the gas fireplace, and one can almost feel the bison’s breath. Ozzie took the photo for a wildlife book in a snowstorm at 26 degrees below zero.
The house is filled with Ozzie’s famous photographs—lining the stairwells, in the gallery room and tucked in hallways. Shots of Diane—who often modeled for him—and past family pets mingle with images of the famous: a young Ted Williams just back from the war, about to embark on an amazing season; Willie Mays; Jack Nicklaus.
Every photo has a story: a larger-than-life photo of a moose that nearly ran Ozzie down; a dangerously close image of a crocodile. Ozzie admits he rarely used a long lens but instead got close to his subjects. “I just talked to the animals,” he said.
There is a yacht in stormy winds, keeling so deep into the waves it is nearly rolling over that Ozzie shot with an 8 x 20 specially built large format camera hand-held for an impossibly long time. Yet the image was so sharp it became a 20 x 60-foot mural adorning the Kodak pavilion in Grand Central Station, the largest display of its kind in the world at one time.
There are photos Ozzie took with his invention, the semi-sub, which allowed him to immerse himself in the water to keep his camera dry. The results were amazing shots such as one of a dog swimming, where you see the dog both above and below the surface.
Ozzie’s studio sits on the second floor of his home, and is enclosed by golden paneling and hardwood floors, with light streaming in from windows large and small. Here are his beloved professional Hasselblad cameras, the many books of his photographs and his workspace for sorting transparencies. Photographs line the walls here also, tributes to the artist and the innovator. A lifetime is captured on these walls, frozen in images colorful and black and white.
As the years have passed, accolades have poured in. “Ozzie Sweet is the Babe Ruth of Photographers,” said Chuck Solomon of Sports Illustrated. “Ozzie is the DiMaggio of his craft; he makes it look easy when in fact, there were none like him,” said Marty Appel, baseball author, historian and TV producer.
When he hears these statements, Ozzie just smiles. “It was all fun,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”